Friday, January 28, 2011

Dark Towers and Lighthouses

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

One item on the Bucket List I’ve actually never written was to lease or buy a lighthouse. In my romance, I would fall asleep to the sounds of surf surging across rugged rocks while the lamp lifted the deep shadows of night, showing men the way home. For a summer week in Maine, 2009, romantic imaginings and reality merged. Our family leased the keeper’s quarters of the Pemaquid Lighthouse.

Whether in Maine or Wisconsin, in ancient lore or modern tales, lighthouses, as a particular type of tower, evoke feelings of safety and comfort. So it is in Beowulf, the English epic.

Long after Beowulf defeats Grendel and his dam, after fifty years as King of Geatland during a time of prosperity and peace, Beowulf faces his final foe, a dragon. Beowulf is too old and frail to fight the dragon alone, yet his followers have lost the fierce loyalty and courage that characterized Beowulf’s youth. They desert their king when his need is great. Only Wiglaf stands to fight, and for his sacrifice, he receives Beowulf’s last requests, including the directive to build a tower by the sea, one that will hold the dragon’s treasure, but more important, one that will provide light by which men may find their way.

Beowulf’s tower is a treasure trove and lighthouse. It represents the man himself, the warrior code, and a standard to which men should aspire. It, like lighthouses in literature and life, signifies a path to certainty and safety, primarily because lighthouses function to penetrate the fog and darkness.

We poor humans cannot see in the dark. We lack the gifts of other animals. We rely upon the light to find our way. The lighthouse serves us. A fog-laden day or night is as disorienting as a night without moonlight. Again, the lighthouse favors us, laying down paths of light on which to walk.

A tower, devoid of the lamp, is a very different symbol. Consider the latest Disney film, Tangled, and the artist’s rendering of Rapunzel’s tower as an imposing structure in the heart of a lovely meadow. In spite of the lush setting, Rapunzel lives in a prison, constructed to deprive her of life so that the woman who kidnapped her can continue to use her. This false mother is the villain, an evil as dark as the tower itself.

Towers such as Rapunzel's are literary archetypes of evil. Lighthouses are archetypal havens, sheltering us from disorienting darkness and fog. Thus, avoid towers without the lamp.

Reading Challenge:

Stephen King has invented a complex maze at the end of which is a tower. Consider reading the seven-volume series The Dark Tower.

Search for The Dark Tower graphic novels

Writing Challenge:

Invent a story with a tower as the object of the quest. You will need to decide if the tower has a lamp or not.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Appositives

If a word or words, including appositives, stand between the subject and the verb, you should wrap the intervening word or words with commas. For example:

• Caitlyn, the Student Council president, earned a 4.0 GPA and the right to speak at Commencement. Why hasn’t she received scholarships to attend college?
• Comic Nicky Verjace incited venom and controversy as host of the Sparkly Orbs award show. Isn’t that what the show’s producers pay him to do?

In the first example above, four words stand between the subject, Caitlyn, and the verb, earned. To facilitate understanding, the words renaming (also known as an appositive) Caitlyn are wrapped in commas.

The second example does not need commas around the appositive, Nicky Verjace. Comic, in this context, functions like a title comparable to President Barack Obama or Dame Maggie Smith. In such contexts, the commas may be omitted.

Other intervening phrases and clauses may or may not need a pair of commas, one at the beginning and one at the end of the phrase or clause. For example:

• Caitlyn, whom you may remember as the Student Council President of our class, was just elected Mayor of San Somewhere, CA. Citizens there have as much faith in her as we did.
• The highway that we chose is narrow and winding. Use it if you have a strong stomach and a love of beauty.

The first sample sentence needs commas because the intervening clause, whom you may remember as the Student Council President of our class, is not essential or necessary to make the point. You could remove the entire clause and still communicate who was just elected mayor.

In the second sentence sample, the clause is necessary to pinpoint which highway the speaker means. Without the words that we chose, the speaker’s point would be more difficult to follow.

For a different, very brief review of punctuating complex sentences, return to the post for August 20, 2010.